For the first time this season, the Miami Dolphins offense looked “bad.” There were some missed opportunities, but for the most part, they just got out-played. The receivers got beat up at the line of scrimmage, the pass protection had free rushers all night, Tua looked overwhelmed, and McDaniel had no answers.
How concerned should fans be? Well, this marks two weeks in a row that Tua didn’t look like his typical 2022 self, with a difficult Saturday evening matchup on the horizon at the Buffalo Bills. They currently have the same record (at this point in the season) as the 2020 Brian Flores-led Miami Dolphins. If they drop a third game in a row, they could potentially fall out of the wild card spot.
This sort of situation didn’t seem possible two weeks ago, but life comes at you fast in the NFL. If we want to look at the glass half-full, they’re fortunate to get this kind of wake-up call during the regular season and still have an opportunity to adjust and respond. The team still controls its own destiny and if they can split these final four contests, they’ll likely sneak into the playoffs.
At this point though, the proposition of “sneaking in” to the playoffs has to frustrate Dolphins fans. This season was supposed to be different (and maybe it will), but these late-season struggles have to feel eerily familiar for most of you. They can turn it around, but they are running out of time.
That might be enough commiserating for now, let’s try to figure out exactly what went wrong in Los Angeles. As most of you are aware, this is a timing-based offense. Receivers are open and chunk plays happen because everyone is on the same page. They didn’t look like they were even in the same narrative genre this past Sunday evening, so what gives?
Did they start to buy into their own hype?
The national media had finally started to buy in on this team. If you asked most fans two weeks ago they’d let you know that McDaniel is a super-genius, Tua is a hybrid of Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, and Jaylen Waddle/Tyreek Hill is the greatest receiver combination to walk the face of the earth.
They have been unstoppable for 99% of the season. Even the 49er’s defense had guys running open all afternoon. This Chargers defense was missing most of their star players and had been a bottom 1⁄3 unit this entire season. Did Tua and McDaniel think they could just show up, throw a few go-balls, and call it a night? When you watch the film, it sure feels that way.
Let’s take a look at their opening possession and start to dissect exactly why they couldn’t seem to get into any rhythm.
The Dolphins' opening drive against the Chargers. Really indicative of how the night would go... pic.twitter.com/FCD57Jb29J— George Forder (@GeorgeForder3) December 14, 2022
Play 1 (1st & 10): They get Hill running a wheel in a 1 on 1 situation against Alohi Gilman (a safety) and take a shot on the first play of the game. I’ll be honest, I don’t have any problem with this. If Hill has a foot more separation or if the ball is just a little further in front of him, this is probably a TD.
Play 2 (2nd & 10): They use the guard and fullback motioning across the line to draw in the linebackers and it works. It leaves Waddle on the back side in 1 on 1 coverage for an easy completion on a slant, right? The throw is on the money, but Waddle is blanketed.
Play 3 (3rd & 10): Now you have a 3rd & long. Outside of Mostert leaking to the flat, everyone is running beyond the sticks. The throw is hurried because the right side of the line gets beat on a twist, but it still isn’t a terrible throw. Tua finds the hole in the zone, but Hill can’t bring it in.
Play 4 (4th & 10): Punt
I love seeing deep and intermediate shots as much as the next person, but you can’t have an entire offense built off of those. There’s a reason that the average completion percentage drops the further downfield the target is, they’re more difficult to complete. When you work off timing and rhythm, guess what you need? Completions.
When you open the game with a deep shot, then follow that up with two incompletions, you haven’t started to build any rhythm or confidence for your quarterback and receivers. Let’s take a look at a later possession. I used their third drive, as their second one started from their own one-yard line (which creates problems with playcalling).
Play 1 (1st & 10): A pitch to Mostert to the left. This could have been a huge play but Durham Smythe just can’t quite kick our old friend Kyle Van Noy out enough to give Mostert a lane. Missed opportunity.
Play 2 (2nd & 13): One of the more strange plays that I’ve seen and I still am not 100% sure what happened. This ball isn’t meant to hit Hill in the chest, he put air under it so Hill can run under it to make the catch. Hill never really sees it and when it passes in front of him his head is turned away from the play. Missed opportunity.
Play 3 (3rd & 13): They have no shot on this one. There is one quicker developing out-breaking route (to Hill-surprise surprise) but he’s bracketed. Everyone else is running deeper routes but not a single one of them is open. I mean, not open AT ALL. To compound their problems on this 3rd & long, their best offensive lineman gets thrown in the wash; and it’s on spin cycle.
Play 4 (4th & 19): Punt
This passing game works because they use motion and play action to get their star players into 1 on 1 situations. When your star players can’t get open or make catches, you’re going to struggle.
What’s missing from both of these drives (and their offense for the entirety of the evening)? Easy QB-friendly plays that get them into a rhythm and produce more manageable third-down situations. Some of the credit obviously goes to the Charger’s defense who came in with a good game plan and executed it, but McDaniel has to find ways to manufacture yards in these situations and stop putting his quarterback in so many difficult positions.
For Tua’s part, he needs to be more patient. It wasn’t abundantly clear on these drives, but he had some opportunities to check it down as the game progressed that he passed up. When it becomes as easy as it has been for them, you have the tendency to look for those chunk plays, rather than just letting them happen.
Let’s watch a really productive game-opening drive from earlier in the season and see if we can’t figure out where the differences are and where they could make adjustments as the season progresses.
Play 1 (1st & 10): They open this game wanting a deep shot as well. Tua is looking at the deep-in with Tyreek, but thinks better of it and dumps it off to Mostert for a modest three or four yard gain. Nothing flashy, but you’re staying on schedule.
Play 2 (2nd & 6): They find success early in the running game, picking up seven yards and a first down.
Play 3 (1st & 10): They stick to the ground and try an outside pitch to Mostert. It doesn’t go anywhere and he’s stopped after a gain of one or two yards.
Play 4 (2nd & 8): A nice little swing pass to Mostert here for a gain of five yards. Again, it isn’t flashy or anything but you’re looking at a 3rd & 3 instead of 3rd & 8.
Play 5 (3rd & 3): Just a quick out to Tyreek right at the sticks. He’s just a little short of the first down, but it creates an opportunity to go for it here.
Play 6 (4th & 1): Hard running by Jeff Wilson here to pick up the first down on 4th & short.
Play 7 (1st & 10): Here is the first and only pass attempt beyond ten yards on this drive. The protection is good and it’s right on the money for Sherfield. Gain of eighteen yards.
Play 8 (1st & 10): They go back to the ground and Jeff Wilson rewards them with another eighteen yard gain.
Play 9 (1st & 10): Again they come back to Wilson and he picks up eleven on this run.
Play 10 (1st & 10): A nice double clutch by Tua, but really just a simple dump off to the flat and Ingold does the rest for the TD.
That looked easy, didn’t it? First off, it’s important to point out that the Browns played this offense completely different. They were in off-coverage to avoid big plays which made it easier on some of these dump-offs. I think it comes down to more of a philosophical switch than anything though.
Even when they had success running the ball against LA, they seemed to get away from it. The Chargers knew exactly what they wanted to do and for the majority of the night they did a fantastic job of taking that away and limiting chunk plays. The Dolphins ended up going 3 for 11 on 3rd down plays. That comes down to not picking up positive yards on early downs and then failing to execute on 3rd & long.
Everybody wants to find that one person to blame, but I’m telling you now that this was a breakdown among all facets of the offense. The receivers struggled to beat press man coverage and dropped some passes, the offensive line gave up too many quick pressures, Tua Tagovailoa missed some throws and tried to force too many deep/intermediate passes, and Mike McDaniel failed to adequately adjust his offensive game plan.
We’ve all seen enough late season collapses to know what it looks like. This feels like one of those, but only time will tell. The Miami Dolphins still have the opportunity to turn this around, but they need to get back to what made them successful earlier in the season. Teams have found a way to slow down the big chunk plays, especially across the middle of the field that had become so common to this offense. How they respond and adjust to that will dictate how the rest of 2022 plays out for the Miami Dolphins.